Monday, December 11, 2006

Viridiana (1960)

Viridiana may seem like an odd film to fall in love with, but the Siren did, and hard, back in her college days when she was trying to see every European film denied her back home in Birmingham, Ala. Her first months in New York often found her in the college cafeteria with a copy of the New Yorker, staring at the listings, like a Soviet refugee transfixed by the overstuffed produce aisle at D'Agostino's. Viridiana was an early choice, and a formative experience. Along with Les Enfants du Paradis and a handful of others viewed around age 18, the Buñuel
film was an electrifying gateway drug to European cinema. However, there are many things the Siren loved when she was 18 that she loves no longer--Southern Comfort, four-inch heels, false eyelashes--so who knew how'd she react when Turner Classic Movies recently screened the movie.

Happily, the Siren can report that Viridiana still knocks her sideways. It has been dissected many times, by critical minds more refined than hers, but the Siren wants to tell you about why she loves this rather bleak, but utterly brilliant film.

Anybody here familiar with Alabama? To say it's religious down there is like remarking that Manhattan is urban. Now my late father and my beloved mother both grew up a few blocks from a local church--Baptist for Daddy, Methodist for Mom. They attended every Sunday until the day they left home, with the happy result that neither one wanted anything to do with weekly services as an adult. But they were Christian enough to want their offspring to choose a nice denomination to settle down with. So the Siren went often to several churches, spent a long time studying Catholicism, and in the end picked the box marked "none of the above." She was tired of Jesus. He kept turning up in the Siren's daily life, whether she invited Him or not, usually invoked by people who wanted to tell her she was wrong. The Siren started to regard the Lord the way other people saw Chuck Barris--someone who pops up to tell you the gong has rung and the fun's all over.

So the lights go down on Viridiana, and the Siren's eyelids pop. There, up on screen, was every seething, rebellious thought she ever had during a Sunday sermon, or while resisting recruitment for the Brothers And Sisters in Christ club, or listening to Coach Jeffries at the pep rally asking Jesus to help us whup the Spartans on Friday night.

For those who haven't seen it--and if you haven't, what else are you doing that's so important?--a little plot summary. Gorgeous Viridiana (Sylvia Pinal) is a novice at a local convent, and one day she is told she should visit her uncle, local farmer Don Jaime. When Viridiana arrives, her uncle, played by a gloriously lecherous Fernando Rey, is thunderstruck by her resemblance to his dead wife. From there out, he is obsessed with getting his virginal niece into bed. What follows includes a drugging and contemplated rape, a nice little episode of foot fetishism and the uncle's abrupt exit. Don Jaime's illegitimate son Jorge (Francisco Rabal) arrives and he too lusts for Viridiana, but is content to wait for her to see the error of her virginity. She takes over the farm and tries to set up a sort of rural food kitchen for the local beggars, but they prove to be about as salvageable as her uncle. To watch the film is to see Viridiana's Christian ideals taken apart, hanged, burnt, tied up, knifed, buried and seduced into a possible game of strip tute. Maybe others find it depressing. To me, it's pure adrenalin. That night in New York, if I could have found Luis Buñuel, I'd have touched the hem of his garment.

You can find a lot of writing on Viridiana around the Web, some of it claiming that the film is anti-Catholic but not anti-Christianity, and it really isn't all that shocking anymore. To which the Siren says, poppycock. If you could show the BASIC club or Coach Jeffries this movie, I guarantee they would ban it just as fast as Pope John XXIII did. If Viridiana's sensual pleasure in whipping herself while wearing a crown of thorns didn't do it, the beggars' celebrated burlesque of the Last Supper would. You can easily turn a screening into a game of Spot the Blasphemy.

Christian beliefs are hung out to dry (in one instance literally), but the film has no special contempt for Christians personally. Viridiana isn't a bad sort, just rather dopey and possessed of a virgin's tendency to think all the other characters are making sexual innuendos at her expense. (Sometimes they are, as with Rabal; sometimes they aren't, as when Pinal is invited to milk a cow.) Her vows of poverty aren't admirable, but neither are they especially despicable. They are just Viridiana's particular way of entertaining herself, no more or less worthy than jumping rope or drugging someone's tea.

There is a great deal of political satire too, although in Buñuel's memoirs he said that when General Franco saw the movie he didn't see what the fuss was about. To the Siren, this just demonstrates that dictators aren't always very bright. (John Nesbit at Toxic Universe points out the acid implication of the line, "The weeds have taken over the past 20 years... And beyond the second floor, the house is overrun with spiders.")

But there is little comfort for the do-gooder liberal, either. Buñuel refuses to romanticize poverty. There is nothing ennobling or beautiful about it, whether it is chosen like Viridiana's, or forced by circumstances like that of the beggars. They aren't purehearted children of the sod, oppressed by the system. They're just poor, and creepy, and eager to grab any momentary gratification. Emerging from poverty is purely a matter of luck, as it is for an abused mutt in the movie's other celebrated sequence. Whether you seek it through Jesus or the kindness of the better-off, your illusion of salvation is just that.

Buñuel made this film after a 22-year exile from Spain. (Here the Siren sees a bit of similarity to Robert Altman, another gleefully godless filmmaker: Invited to return to his homeland and make a movie, Buñuel made a lengthy disquisition on what bums they all were.) If Franco wasn't incensed, plenty of others got the point. When Viridiana was released, it was promptly banned in Spain and denounced by the Vatican. Spain's chief censor was forced to resign. Even Sturges and Lubitsch didn't manage to get the censors fired. If that doesn't tell you Viridiana's worth, the Siren doesn't know what will.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

So, tell me oh Siren, would you pay $45 (after discounts at DVDPlanet) for the Criterion Collection editions of this movie and "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie"? Mind you, Anonymous is from India and - I forget the exact term to be used - this is a much higher amount here than it is for you. So, I guess the only hard fact that I can put down to make a comparison would be that this is exactly 5.7% of my monthly salary. This is, of course, inclusive of income tax, and other expenses, so the actual percentage is much higher.

Oh, and add to this that he will have to wait another couple of months to actually get the DVDs because that's when his friend will be back in India from the US. (Anonymous refuses to do any more international shipping because the cost is exorbitant, the wait interminable, and the last time he did so, customs charged him 20% on the shipment.)

However, it is also true that Anonymous has far more against religion than the Siren could ever have. You see, he was marked at an early age by being dragged out of bed every Sunday morning at an ungodly hour to attend a 3 (THREE) hour service, followed by Sunday School. And then you have the fact that while he has seen only 1 Bunuel film, that was "The Age of Gold", which he loved.

So would you do it, huh? Or would you rather I do what I felt fit and stopped spamming your blog? :)

Campaspe said...

The Siren is delighted to be attracting such a far-flung audience, and a witty one, too.

The test of whether to buy a DVD, to me, is whether you can see yourself watching it more than once. Obviously I love Viridiana and Discreet Charm is also brilliant, but they might not be the sort of thing you want to watch four or five times a year. I also feel for you on the Customs thing--Canada charged me a usurious fee for getting some DVDs, too. If your friend is in the UK for a while, see if s/he can get the items second-hand. The quality is usually fine and the price better.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the compliment, Campaspe. Creating the blog yesterday was a bit of a spur-of-the-moment thing. I needed to test the account, and rather than make a full post, I thought I might begin with a comment somewhere ? and then I saw your post. I even progressed to making my first post today.

I haven?t done any research into blogger etiquette, but I guess if you were to post comments, it should have some sort of relevance with the article above. Trouble is, I haven?t read the whole thing ? and I don?t want to, as I haven?t seen the movie. I dislike reading much about movies before I?ve seen them. So I read paragraphs 1, 2, and 3, gave 4 ? 8 a miss, and then went on to #9. Apart from the comment on religion above, I have nothing else to offer, as I know next to nothing about Southern Comfort, false eyelashes or 4-inch heels. And the only thing I know about Alabama is, well, I saw ?My Cousin Vinny? recently ? and one character opined that you guys are corrupt, inbred and that you sleep with your sisters. But it?s not very journalistic to go by one source, and he was under a lot of stress, besides. I?ll give you guys the benefit of the doubt. :)

I came upon your blog after watching ?The Third Man? and was smitten by Alida Valli. I googled a bit, and found that very well written piece on your blog. I wouldn?t say I?m a regular, and I?m not really into old movies, but I like your writing style and enjoy reading your blog. Have a nice day!

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Say, aren't we all lurkers around here?

This is one of your best blog posts ever. You should be paid handsomely to write this well. This paragraph below is a gem of cadence and wit. I would have never guessed you for a fellow Southerner!

Anybody here familiar with Alabama? To say it's religious down there is like remarking that Manhattan is urban. Now my late father and my beloved mother both grew up a few blocks from a local church--Baptist for Daddy, Methodist for Mom. They attended every Sunday until the day they left home, with the happy result that neither one wanted anything to do with weekly services as an adult. But they were Christian enough to want their offspring to choose a nice denomination to settle down with. So the Siren went often to several churches, spent a long time studying Catholicism, and in the end picked the box marked "none of the above." She was tired of Jesus. He kept turning up in the Siren's daily life, whether she invited Him or not, usually invoked by people who wanted to tell her she was wrong. The Siren started to regard the Lord the way other people saw Chuck Barris--someone who pops up to tell you the gong has rung and the fun's all over.

Campaspe said...

TLRHB: Aw shucks. :) Thanks for the kind words.

Where are YOU from, if I may ask?

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Virginia, the cradle of presidents.

Anonymous said...

Single quotes, double quotes and even some hyphens have been converted to question marks in that last comment of mine. Why would it do something like that?

Gloria said...

"Viridiana" was meant to represent Spain in Festivals and award competitions, but when the censors saw the film, it became a film without a country.

Buñuel made more films which were disliked by the religious authorities, "Simon del Desierto" (With Silvia Pinal as... the Devil!) and "Tristana" (With Rey lusting this time after Catherine Deneuve)... Both I consider to be a healthy antidote to the dulling theocracy which ruled Spain since the late Middle Age.

Culturally, Buñuel is inevitably anti-catholic, but I would say he's anti-christian as well, as I can imagine perfectly him doing a satire against other fundamentalisms or religious nature (whether christian or not).

BTW, in the Holy Supper pose of the beggars there's a hrad-to translate colloquial idiom, as "to take a photo/have a photo taken" is always a naughty way to refer a lady having her knickers -or similar- on public sight.

Campaspe said...

Gloria, I was most eager to hear your thoughts on this one. :) The Holy Supper detail is hilarious, and the sort of thing only a native speaker can point out.

I have seen Tristana too, but preferred Viridiana, on the whole. Despite Spain's reaction Viridiana did win at Cannes. But it may be worth noting that nowadays (and perhaps even then) it couldn't compete for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, as it's the country that nominates individual films for the award. This absurd system results in a lot of fine foreign films never even getting a shot at the Oscar. Then again, the rather reactionary Academy might have gotten the vapors from Viridiana, as well.

Gloria said...

Campaspe, there is much historical regret, among sectors of Spanish filmdom, that Viridiana couldn't be nominated for the Best Foreign film Oscar, due to its apatride status, and thus become -so they speculate- the first Spanish movie to win the award... but as you say, I doubt Viridiana would have been uncle Oscar's cup of tea.

I also think that Viridiana is a better film, yet I have a soft spot for Tristana because of the references to the "Bell of Huesca" legend (check link below): My parents were Aragonese, like Buñuel , so these stories were known at home (Another well-known Aragonese is painter Francisco de Goya, who, as Buñuel, was quite apt to depict the "España negra"). And of course, Tristana has riotous moments, like the Virgin images montage following Tristana's exhibition at the balcony.

Incidentally, Franco had a stint as a film writer: under pseudonym, he wrote the script of a film titled "Raza", which is -most predictably- a dull vindication of old regime values and militarism.

http://www.geocities.com/TheTropics/Cabana/6924/i_osca6.htm

Campaspe said...

The idea of Franco as another failed screenwriter is quite something. It gives me a new way of looking at the Libertas blog, certainly. :D

Gloria said...

Ha, ha... nice one! Still, he was failed only in regards of producing good writing: One of the nice things about being a dictator is that you can order all your subjects to go and see the movie, lest they be regarded as "dissafected" subjects and be dealt with accordingly (the film was compulsory watch, sort of: my mom recalled how all the children school were taken to the cinema to see it).